CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings Saga

The Battle of the Books - No contest. Tolkien runs rings around Potter

by Brian M. Carney (Opinion Journal, November 30, 2001)

Just when the menace of terrorism has darkened normal life and the guns of war have sounded, moviegoers on both sides of the Atlantic are turning out in huge numbers to see Harry Potter ride a broom across the silver screen and fight . . . evil.

The contest between good and evil, of course, has been a centerpiece of moral philosophy since at least Plato. In the "Republic," one of Socrates' interlocutors argues that "justice" is simply what benefits those in charge and that the happiest man will be the most perfectly evil one.

This is deep water, and it may be a lot to ask a writer of what are basically children's stories to delve into an age-old moral debate. But J.K. Rowling is writing in a tradition too, a literary one reaching back even further--of heroic sagas and mythic battles between the forces of light and of darkness. That tradition received its greatest 20th-century expression in the work of her compatriot, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, whose three-volume masterwork, "The Lord of the Rings," is about to open in movie theaters, too.

Thus Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins, Tolkien's protagonist, will soon battle not only evil but also each other for the hearts and minds of a generation. If there is any justice in the world, Frodo should win.

Yes, Tolkien's is the better story, but he deserves the laurel for another reason: He conceived of fantasy writing as a medium for moral thought experiments. "Harry Potter" may be entertaining, imaginative and wry. But it isn't challenging. Morally speaking, Harry's magical world is trite.

"Harry Potter and Philosopher's Stone," as the book was called in Britain--the U.S. marketers substituted "Sorcerer's Stone" in the title--is a classic struggle of Good vs. Evil. Harry, of course, is Good, and the wizard Voldemort, who killed Harry's parents, is Evil. Why is Voldemort evil? Well, he wants to "take over," we learn, and he kills people. Harry is good because he's nice, and we can't help sympathizing with him, since Voldemort killed his parents and all. This is very straightforward stuff, and there's little to argue with in it. But there's also little to argue for.

Tolkien delves deeper. When Socrates wanted to examine whether the just or unjust man was happier, he employed a myth in which a man finds a ring that allows him to become invisible and so, if he chooses, to commit terrible crimes with impunity. Tolkien (belatedly) takes up Socrates' inquiry by attempting to show that the man who uses such a ring--even the good man--is worse off than he who would destroy it. In short, Tolkien is doubtful of man's ability to resist the temptation of absolute power. That is one of the great themes of the book.

Thus Tolkien's ring is most dangerous to its wisest and most powerful characters--princes and wizards who can be made to believe that they will wield absolute power benevolently. The wizard Saruman, a scholar and originally a good man, is corrupted by the ring. He starts out studying its history and eventually becomes obsessed with having it. In the end he is ruined, done in by the conceit that only he is wise enough to direct its powers toward the proper ends.

Another "good guy," the prince Boromir, underestimates the ring's dark temptations and argues that it should be used against the forces of evil; not to do so, he believes, is to accept defeat. He is wisely overruled, however, by others who decide that the ring must be brought straight to the heart of evil's domain and destroyed. Sauron, the Satanic figure who created the ring, never suspects the plan because he can't imagine that anyone would destroy something that could make its possessor all-powerful.

Even Frodo, the hobbit ring-bearer in Tolkien's tale, is not immune to the temptation to use the ring, and when the moment comes for him to destroy it, he cannot bring himself to cast it away.

This kind of moral complexity is simply absent from Ms. Rowling's books. Contrast Tolkien's careful use of the ring with Ms. Rowling's rather flip use of another great artifact of legend, the philosopher's stone. Alchemists believed the stone would turn lead into gold. As a bonus, it was also thought to confer eternal life. The conceit of "Harry Potter" is that such a stone has been made and the bad guy wants it.

This is a setup worthy of Tolkien; indeed, it mimics his tale in vital respects. But Ms. Rowling's story manages to bring to light none of the moral dilemmas--of mortality, wealth, power--that the existence of the stone naturally suggests. The reader simply accepts as given that both sides want it, no particular importance is assigned to its powers and Harry never shows any interest in using it. He merely wants to keep it away from the bad guy. Once that's accomplished, the stone drops out of the story, like a token at the end of some video game.

In Tolkien's world the temptation of evil is one that all, or nearly all, of his characters must confront. The argument of Tolkien's tale--controversial, to be sure--is that, while intentions matter, the way we act is far more important than why we act. His story, for all its narrative brio, presents a serious rebuttal to the idea that good ends justify using evil means.

That Tolkien, who wrote "The Lord of the Rings" during World War II and published it shortly after, saw this as a message for his times was made plain in his foreword to the second edition. When the books first came out, many advanced the theory that his tale of the good guys in the West battling aggressive evil in the East was a parable for the war. Tolkien savaged this analogy, implying that, by compromising with Stalin in Europe and using the atomic bomb against the Japanese, the Allies had failed to live up to the standards set by his best fictitious characters. In our world, Tolkien concluded, referring to the diminutive, earthy creatures at the center of his tale, "Hobbits . . . would not have survived even as slaves."

To mention the war, of course, is to remind ourselves that Tolkien was writing in perilous times, whereas Ms. Rowling's writing, begun while she was on the dole in Britain in the 1990s, reflects the greater comfort and apparent security of the pre-Sept. 11 world. But if the need to confront evil, or even to recognize it as such, could be ignored before, it cannot now. Just as the emergence of Nazism and Stalinism in the 1930s caught the West unawares, so too did the malevolence of Sept. 11. It is time to shake off our moral complacency.

"Harry Potter" will not help. For all its charms, it comes close to moral fatuousness by reducing good and evil to naughty and nice. Tolkien did much more--showing the ethical challenges we all face, as individuals and as nations. Unquestionably a writer for his times, Tolkien is also the better one for ours.

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